You wake up at three in the morning. In El Paso. You board a bus, and spend the rest of your day herding livestock, picking chilies, or milking cows. Then, at the end of the day, you’re handed cash for your work, but it may not be enough.
“So if we work eight, nine, ten hours, they put down that we work less,” said an agricultural worker who goes through this process on a regular basis. He has asked not to use his real name for fear of retaliation. “For example, they don’t pay us for more than eight hours, so if you only get $40, they say that’s what you worked, eight hours.”
The worker said he’s been working in New Mexico for seven months, supports two children in Mexico, but says he hasn’t complained to his boss.
“With the bosses, there’s no talking to them; they pay just what they want,” he said. “No one claims differently. If someone speaks out, they no longer have work.”
Advocates at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty say this story is not uncommon. They conducted a six-month investigation into the state's agricultural practices.
“We interviewed 250 farm workers and dairy workers in New Mexico,” says Maria Martinez Sanchez, an attorney with the Center. “We talked about wages, we talked about health and safety issues, labor conditions overall and demographics.”
The report found that 55 percent of workers in the dairy industry work more than eight hours a day, and almost half of those laborers put in a six-day week or more.
“So you're working six days a week, 12 hours a day,” Sanchez said. “You only have to be paid the federal minimum wage which is $7.25 an hour, and you are not entitled to any overtime whether it be state or federal.”
Sanchez says these workers are getting significantly underpaid.
“Well in the dairy industry, we treat our workers pretty well, I believe,” said Beverly Idsinga, Executive Director of Dairy Producers New Mexico. “They're getting paid, probably an average of $15 an hour, that's way above minimum wage, and that's for just the average worker.”
Idsinga said data on how much people are paid is hard to come by, but right now she said dairies are competing with the oil and gas and construction industries for labor. They pay more, so she said dairies have to pay more.
“Dairies are different,” Idsinga said. “They’re not all uniform, so you would have to do that on a case-by-case basis. But I know that some dairies employ people that do work more than eight hours, but they pay them overtime, and it's always the employee's choice.”
Idsinga says the foremost problem in the dairy industry right now is that producers don’t get to choose how much they sell their milk for, which means profits and production costs are never consistent.
Jeff Witte serves as Secretary of Agriculture for New Mexico. He said with that kind of uncertainty, producers have to find ways to save.
“Any mandatory cost increases, whatever factor they may be, either through government mandates or labor competition, ends up pushing their cost of production up,” Witte said.
Currently, 93 percent of New Mexico is experiencing exceptional drought conditions. It's ranked as the driest state in the nation. Witte says those conditions have driven up the price of feed, corn and wheat, while alfalfa production has dropped, putting pressure on the dairy and livestock sectors, which bring in up to $2 billion a year to the state's economy. At last count, Witte said about a dozen dairies have gone out of business since drought set in.
“You know, that’s a significant hit to the state, economically, every dairy, especially the size of our dairies, they provide a lot of community impact and support,” Witte said.
This may be one reason why dairies struggle to pay their workers a competitive wage. However, Tess Wilkes, a staff attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said another reason could be that the workers won’t say anything.
“They're a mix of documented and undocumented,” Wilkes said. “They're very afraid of retaliation, and that's a barrier anytime that they want to make a complaint.”
As for the unnamed worker in El Paso, he hopes people will hear his troubles and think twice before coming to work in New Mexico.
“Here in New Mexico they pay very little in farming,” he said. “It’s been a state where they’ve always paid very little. I’ve worked in other states and they pay much better.”
He said in December, he’ll leave his job and the state to find better pay.